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10.12.2008 | Stefan Chwin | Tygodnik Powszechny

God must have parachuted him to Earth


















Photo: Peter Župník


These days Wałęsa is a non-person even if his face pops up on television from time to time. In today’s Poland the erstwhile Polish leader has been turned into an instrument in the war of politics. Wałęsa can be used to lash out at the Kaczyńskis or to „compromise” Tusk’s team. Very few people care about who Wałęsą was or who he is today.  Only one hard question is heard in Poland today: “Are you on Wałęsą’s side, i.e. on ours, or are you against Wałęsą, i.e. against us?” Or: “Are you on Wałęsą’s side, i.e. you are against us, or are you against Wałęsą, i.e. you are on our side?” This is the situation the Nobel Peace Prize laureate finds himself in as he prepares to celebrate the anniversary of his award.

A home-grown gem

The first time I laid eyes on him was on the 18 or 19 August 1980. It was midday, the early days of the Gdańsk strike, the sky was clear, the sun was hot. In two dextrous movements he swung himself on top of the Gdańsk Lenin Shipyards’ second gate, raised his hands and shook his closed fists above his head. I was astonished. There I was, looking at a man who knew no fear and whose very demeanour wiped fear from everyone else’s hearts. I stood ten steps away from him, beneath the wooden cross stuck in the earth, listening to his voice from above the gate adorned by carnations, a portrait of the Pope and a picture of the Virgin of Jasna Góra, and could not believe my ears. His voice rang out with an incredible, indisputable, strong, iron certainty: “We shall win!”

And a few minutes later, when an electric cart drove out of the shipyard gates carrying a plaster model of the Three Crosses Memorial which was to be erected outside the shipyards a few months later, I just shook my head: “This is sheer madness!”  I heard people say that a few kilometres from Gdańsk large security squads were massing, getting ready to overpower the strikers but here he was, a few steps away from me, standing on that famous gate endlessly shown by the world’s TV stations all day long, shaking his fists high above his head, taunting the party leadership and the Eastern empire with that brazen smile beneath his black moustache.

My first thought was: “Is this just a nonentity who has by chance been swept to the forefront of events?” But he was no chance nonentity. He emanated the certainty of a born leader.  You could not fake that. Compared with him, everyone else appeared too pale, too insubstantial to take the lead. The world’s TV cameras went crazy over him.

He was straight out of the pages of a Sienkiewicz novel:  the aristocratic black moustache, the quiff of hair above his forehead, the Adam’s apple bobbing up and down his slender throat.  A swashbuckling romantic hero from the shipyards taking on the whole world but still brimming with ordinary people’s common sense, a peasant’s dislike of ardour and passion, and village folks’ craft and cunning. It was as if he had sprung directly from the Polish dream or had been cut out of an illustration in Sienkiewicz’s “The Deluge”.  An offspring of minor gentry who made it to governor and brought with him a slew of textile workers, shop assistants and railwaymen.  I felt a lump in my throat, so amazed was I to see that after decades of living in a murky symbiosis with the system the grey communized masses of Polish workers had suddenly managed to produce a gem in the Polish national colours. It was as if God himself had parachuted him to Earth.

The great year of 1980 was no carnival of freedom even if we are now wont to pretend that the women’s hunger marches on the streets of Łódż and Skierniewice bristled with the energy of a Rio de Janeiro samba. In fact it was a year of tremendous fear. That is why my incredulity was mixed with admiration and concern. When I heard the World’s Leading Pole talking to foreign journalists in jumbled words that were impossible to translate into a human language, I was wracked by shame. Nevertheless, despite all the excitement of those frightening days, I felt reassured that it was him, not someone else, who was navigating Solidarity’s ship through the straits of the Red Sea. He could sense a historic moment, he spun, manoeuvred and stumbled, sometimes he muddled things up; but he knew what he was doing. In an era of tensions he was able to spare us a few serious troubles.

Today I am on his side but I’m also against him. I do want to be on the side of truth but very few people are interested in the truth about Wałęsa. Some scream that we have to fight against those who see him as “Bolek” (his codename as an alleged secret police informer), others shout that we need to fight against those who do not want to see him as “Bolek”. Poles are at each other’s throats in this matter. And what about the man himself, the shipyard hero of August 1980?  

An old, grey man from Gdańsk with a Virgin Mary on his lapel who holds forth every now and again about his ‘big ideas’ that we let in through one ear and out through the other, even if we’re fond of him. We say: it doesn’t matter who he is today, all that matters is that he is a living legend because Poland can profit from him. I don’t know about profit but perhaps it is worth believing in profit because faith works miracles. These days nobody - neither his enemies nor his allies -  takes seriously anything Wałęsa has to say. He has become untouchable which means he can insult Poland’s President with impunity. His attempts to start his own political party have failed. He can’t win any elections. He has become a pensioner of his own destiny, someone to whom we pay his due for his former achievements without being able to quite suppress an embarrassed smile whenever we hear him talk of “globalization and commercialization”.

He is no longer a human being or a person - he has turned into Poland’s logo. Apart from the late Pope he is the only Pole the world recognizes. Wherever he turns up, by the mere token of his presence he reminds everyone of the existence of Poland, a country that does not really exist for many people, as I had an opportunity to discover during a trip to America. But everyone has heard of “Lech Valesa”. The world sees in him the man who overthrew communism, even though communism was not “overthrown” by anyone. Poland still needs him as proof that we exist and that, despite everything, we do matter. His cult reveals the Poles’ panic-like fear of non-existence. We don’t exist - we say to ourselves - but he does. We are invisible, but he is visible on a global scale and thereby indirectly affirms our existence.

Poland needs his legend because weak nations cannot live without legends.

His legend helps to prop up our sapped self-confidence. But this world needs legends. And that is why we have to defend Wałęsa’s legend with all our might, as we do our independence, but equally we must revise and question it just as much. For healthy nations do not depend on the untouchability of their legends but rather on a balanced collective mind which, in turn, depends on a dynamic balance between legend and anti-legend. Truly mature nations can live without a Father and if their Father’s legend crumbles, it is no big tragedy for them. 

Courtly table tennis

I remember that already in the first months of Solidarity something about him grated. He wasn’t nice to people from Solidarity’s National Committee, always convinced that he knew best. He acquired an unpleasant leader-like demeanour which became more apparent later, when he took up the post of Polish President and struck up friendships with people who were all too willing to “adjust” the law to his liking. I admired him for his past, for being able to rebel in the blackest night of communism, for standing up against ‘red power’ even though it exposed his family to risk for years on end, even though he was all alone, as poor as a church mouse, yet never losing his inner balance, for staying normal and ordinary. And for having at his side Danuta, an ordinary, normal Polish woman who knew how to behave under the spotlight of Nobel adoration, and later managed to avoid doing anything silly - something he, sadly, did not manage.

He was completely lost as the country’s president. He suffered and struggled in a role that was not right for him. He used to spend hours in the Presidential Palace basement playing table tennis with eminences grises who were anything but eminent. He was not always able to control his anti-intellectual complex.  He was happy to boast about not having read any books, which was a very silly thing to do in a country where only a tiny minority reads books. He was frustrated, angry, aggressive.  And if it is true that he, as the Head of the Polish State, destroyed documents in his secret police file, it was a much worse thing to do than the unfortunate episode in his youth when he got involved with the bastards from the secret police, committing a few serious stupid mistakes in the process.  But on the whole, what he did for Poland was a hundred time more important than the bad things from the 70s and from later. His achievements more than make up for his mistakes. But there was something else. His great career, his glamorous rise to the heights of the Polish Republic,  demonstrated the failure of the Polish intelligentsia, the failure of the Polish democratic opposition, the failure of Jacek Kuroń, Adam Michnik, Lityński, Modzelewski, the Kaczyńskis, Macierewicz and others, the failure of the visible and invisible elites, yes, the failure of the entire Polish intelligentsia which, in a key historic moment, failed to produce an intellectual leader of Václav Havel’s stature,  and one who was also liked by the majority of Poles. And the Czechs did like their Havel.

For, however much I valued Wałęsą for his past achievements, I would have preferred to see in Independent Poland’s presidential seat someone of Havel’s ilk.  And when later on someone had the bright idea of offering Wałęsą a seat in the European Council of Wise Men, I would have preferred for that seat to have been taken by someone like Leszek Kołakowski.

I am the nation

Both intellectuals and non-intellectuals like to lean on Wałęsą because they realize they don’t mean anything without him. This started way back in 1980 and it still happens today. All this waving of the Wałęsą banner, leaning on him, exhorting, just to irritate the conservative-nationalist side whose banner, in turn, is emblazoned with a hatred of “Bolek”.

The current panicky Wałęsą cult (“we have to defend the legend!”) as well as the equally panicky destruction of the myth (“the legend has to be unmasked!”) is further proof of the failure of our intelligentsia, whose members are not able to stand up in their own right when it comes to leadership. Wałęsą - turned into a sign, a thermometer of political heat - continues to be used as a positive or negative reference point by our intelligentsia, a handy prop without which it cannot function. In this respect the man who does not exist, is actually present in a powerful way, exerting an influence over Polish life.

Let’s not fool ourselves - the Nobel festivities in Gdańsk won’t turn into a nationwide holiday. Poland cannot be sewn together. For the pro-Wałęsą side it is an opportunity to show the world that the anti-Kaczyński faction is still alive and kicking.  Yet again Wałęsą will be waved around like a banner from the striking shipyard window, like the white and red rag of a flag waved in front of those who can’t stand him.  The anti-Wałęsą side will have an excuse for condescending sneers over the fuss around the Dalai Lama.  Being present at or absent from receptions will be read like a political tract.  Are you on our side or are you against us…

However, as we mark the occasion, we would be well advised to think of the truth, that is to say, to remember the mark Wałęsą has left on Polish culture. He created it often unconsciously, by his actions.  Suddenly someone appeared among us, who in an exceptional moment of our national history managed to concentrate the nation’s collective energy and in a fatally difficult situation was able to steer this energy in a sensible direction. He did not resemble any of Poland’s past leaders. Despite his aristocratic-peasant style, bristly and arrogant at the same time, he never forgot that he embodied a collective effort, even though he liked to - and still likes to - overuse the pronoun “I”.  He was completely unsuited to stationary governance and should steer clear of it. But he was the good spirit in the era of rebellion and hope, even though he ruffled many feathers.

He was the embodiment of the failure of the Polish intelligentsia but perhaps it was his lack of education that helped him find his own path, without any romantic prejudice of the kind that tends to hold back the enlightened classes.  Following his youthful error, when he allowed himself to be dragged into contact with the secret police, he managed to keep on the straight and narrow in the most difficult of times.  Later on, he did not manage to withdraw from politics in time but that happens to many people, so there is nothing tragic about it. His historical identity is hard to define. He wasn’t really a politician.  As a people’s tribune he often blindly felt his way forward but who knows, maybe this saved him from the moralistic rigidity that often befalls many Polish intellectuals.  He was not obsessed about his “upright stance” and that enabled him to be flexible in his actions. His peasant ethos, ambiguous contacts with the secret police and his shipyard experience of “pretend work” taught him how to dodge, prevaricate, mix things up and muddy waters tactically, without ever losing sight of the line that had to be followed.  And in the key moments he knew how to follow that line.

Lighting up

Is there anything dangerous in his legend? Human beings crave illusions. He is the first to say that he overthrew communism. But if he had not had Gorbachov and Yeltsin as his sparring partners he would not have overthrown anything. He would not have been able to get the Russians to hand over the Katyń massacre documents, had it been Putin rather than Gorbachov residing in the Kremlin.  We often say that it was Wałęsą who got the Soviet army out of Poland. But if Putin had ruled the Kremlin in those days the army would still be sitting put in our country, even though we might have had capitalism; because Russia would have been happy to embrace capitalism - but it would have never let us out of its embrace.

The main achievement of Solidarity and Wałęsą was to demonstrate to the whole world that the Poles had had enough of communism and that they longed for freedom.  And it was under his leadership that Solidarity turned into the great manifestation of this longing, the shout that was heard by the whole world. For the first time in our thousand-year history the whole world learned of our existence. There was not a country that did not talk about us. And it was under Wałęsą’s sensible leadership that Solidarity steered a peaceful course while winning the great battle for media visibility on a global scale, because he sensed that without winning this battle nothing could be achieved. The world loved the oversized biro - an object of historic as well as ludic qualities - he used to sign the August Agreement, because it brought a new tone into politics. The cloudy realm of social conflict was shot through with a sense of humour that is adored by mass culture. And the world did love Lech, this mixture of the Polish aristocratic hero’s moustache with Elvis’s quiff and sideburns.

And so the Western nations not only got to know about us, they also came to love our manner, and came out in our support which, in turn, influenced their governments. And that was why the great powers agreed to a new peaceful division of the ‘spheres of influence’ after Yalta, a division that has proved beneficial for us.  Solidarity’s contribution to this is invaluable. The idea that the world is unthinkable without a free Poland and a free East Central Europe, took root in the consciousness of Western societies whose governments reached an agreement with the Russia of Gorbachov and Yeltsin. This is the only reason why we have ended up in the Western sphere of influence, as many of us had long wished. But it wasn’t we who smashed the Berlin Wall. It was dismantled in agreement with the Americans on Gorbachov’s recommendation.

So, as we mark the Nobel anniversary, let us not levitate above history’s hard reality and as we appreciate the importance of the Laureate’s deeds, let us not wallow in the depths of our national megalomania. History shows that this does not tend to end well for us.


Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Polish in the Tygodnik Powszechny on 02 December 2008.


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